When we’re stuck on a hard problem, we go seek out a superior. It seems like common sense. It’s something that is imbued into us from childhood and into adulthood. When you can’t solve that math problem, you ask your teacher. When you’re stuck on a work project, you go ask your boss. But if you’re looking for truly disruptive innovation, seeking out the “superiors” or experts and insiders in your organization, or even your industry, may not be the wisest move. Even experts get stuck, and so innovation typically needs the influence of outsiders.
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While we think great ideas increase with one’s level of expertise, the problem with experts is that the relationship between expertise and great insight isn’t linear. It looks more like an upside-down U, reaching its peak and then beginning to decline. It was the French mathematician Adolphe Quetelet who first noticed this trend in the 19th century. Quetelet studied the careers of playwrights and graphed their productivity over time. He found that the output of most playwrights tended to move upward until hitting a creative peak, then the number of published plays began to decrease. Professor Dean Keith Simonton, built off of Quetelet’s findings to research productivity over time in a variety of creative professions and had similar findings: an increase in creative output until a certain point, a short plateau, and then a decline.
One possible explanation for these counterintuitive findings is that generating breakthroughs involves not just coming up with ideas, but choosing which ideas to test. As individuals grow in their expertise, their opinions about what won’t work may grow because of past experiences trying similar ideas and failing. Those with enough expertise to generate an idea, but not enough to dismiss it untried, end up testing more ideas and, even though most still fail, every once in awhile they discover an untried idea that leads to disruptive innovation.
The good news is that many organizations are realizing the power of outsiders for bringing up innovation. Even in a sector as bureaucratic, “expert”-laden, and insider-driven as government, cities and states are actively seeking out new insights through outside sources. One example of this new approach to finding talent comes from Fuse Corps, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that leverages the outsider dynamic by pairing entrepreneurs and mid-career professionals inside city and state governments through one-year fellowships that provide a much needed innovation injection. Fuse Corps Fellows are passionate about making changes in government, but they also bring fresh ideas about how to do it that come from their diverse sets of experience. While they’re only in their second round of placing fellows, Fuse Corps crew has already achieved some amazing results, including raising $25 million for DC Promise neighborhood initiatives, and building edible gardens throughout Sacramento Public Schools. The goal of Fuse Corps is to build what they call “tri-sector” athletes, individuals with experiences in the profit, nonprofit, and public spheres who can bring outside insights to each of these sectors. Fuse Corps’ success should serve as a model to companies and individuals and lead them to consider a serious question: what are you doing to leverage outside voices in your quest for innovation?
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